Oh the Places You’ll Go: Montgomery & Memphis

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I’ve been reviewing in my mind places I’ve visited that mattered in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. His birthplace on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church where his father Mike was pastor, followed by King, Jr. (and now Senator Raphael Warnock), adjacent to his tomb at the King Center. I’ve been inside the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery where he began his ministry, and in the church parsonage which was firebombed in January 1956. I’ve walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he was assassinated, is a moving location, not to mention the Birmingham jail and Boston University where he studied.

Whose life more dramatically embodies the common phrase, Location, location, location? When Dr. King greeted parishoners on the front steps at Dexter, the steps of the Alabama State Capitol where Governor Wallace spewed venom were just a stone’s throw away on the same street. Had King crossed a bridge in Canada instead of Selma, no one would have noticed. If he’d shared his dream at Disneyland instead of the mall in Washington, we’d find it humorous.

Like Jesus and all the great heroes and change agents through history, Dr. King walked directly into the teeth of danger, into places he was certainly not welcome and at risk of bodily harm. A brilliant orator, his words were ridiculed where he spoke them.

When I stand where something courageous and revolutionary happened, I try to feel what’s coming up out of the ground into my feet and body. My son Noah and I stood on the porch of the Dexter Ave. parsonage where a firebomb nearly destroyed the house with Mrs. King and their young daughter inside. Our driver, an old quiet gentleman, after we stood there silently for a few minutes, said “I was there that night – when I was about the age of your son.” I trembled, and asked him all he could recall – when an angry crowd assembled and King stunned them by saying “Don’t get panicky. Don’t get your weapons. Remember what God said. We want to love our enemies. Be good to them. What we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. God is with us.”

Lisa and I walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge. No opposition, no billy clubs, no lashing tongues, but I tried to feel the immense courage, hope and determination to change the world rising up through my feet, which are so very soft from my life of comfort. Somebody prodded me to pose for a photo in the Dexter pulpit. I did, grinned, and then felt so very small and foolish.

I could ramble on and on. We are fortunate, in a sad sort of way, that we live very close to places where history happened, and not long ago. You can read about the Lorraine Motel in a book or you can watch a documentary – or you can just go about your life of busyness and diversion and not think about it at all. But if you go to Memphis, and instead of fixating on barbecue and Elvis pay a visit to the Lorraine, there’s something about standing on that balcony where he came out to get some fresh air with his friends who’d enjoyed a pillow fight the night before – and then he was gone. Across the street you can see where James Earl Ray shot him – and then fled authorities for more than 2 months and into 4 countries!

In our pathetically divided America, some see racism everywhere, and some think it’s a thing of the past. Personally, I feel sure God wants me to listen to the people who might be vulnerable or the victims of ongoing, sneaky racism – if it exists. They can tell me. I am sure God would rather me err on the side of suspecting much work on such deeply ingrained attitudes isn’t done yet. And I am sure God asks me, and all of us, to have some courage, to take note that what happened at the King places you can easily visit didn’t happen centuries ago. My driver in Montgomery was there. Feels like hard work – and it is, like everything else that’s meaningful.

During the Montgomery bus boycott, a taxi driver pulled up beside a much beloved older woman known as Mother Pollard and asked if he could give her a ride. She said “No, I’ll walk. My feet are tired, but my soul is rested.” I’ve walked all over her Montgomery, and Selma, and Birmingham, and Atlanta. I guess my feet get tired. But the walk does rest my soul – and stirs it to walk a little faster.